Congress Must Prioritize Investments in Anti-Racist Housing Programs to Truly “Build Back Better”

By Jesse Fairbanks

The affordable housing investments written into the original budget resolution were historic and bold, totaling $327 billion. But now that the Biden Administration and Congress are negotiating on how to pare down the original $3.5 trillion package—by some reports to less than $2 trillion—some of the exciting new programs that House committees proposed have been sidelined. Lawmakers must prioritize investments in restitutive programs that can support housing justice organizers in the local fight for anti-racist housing and land use policies.

America’s chronic shortage of affordable housing units has left over 580,000 adults and 100,000 children experiencing homelessness on any given night, 10 million households paying 50 percent or more of their income on rent, and most people with low incomes locked out of homeownership opportunities. Congress needs to invest more federal dollars into programs that can increase the number of affordable housing units and preserve what’s already available, but just fixing the issue of supply and deepening subsidies will not end homelessness. We must also establish programs that aim to rectify past policy choices made by federal, state, and local governments that have directly contributed to wealth and homeownership disparities between Black and white households.

Alongside the $90 billion investments in Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs) and $80 billion in public housing, the House bill text includes some new programs that, if implemented thoughtfully, would work to eliminate racial inequities. Of the $327 billion in total housing investments, the House Financial Services Committee allocated close to $15 billion to the following programs.

  • Community Reinvestment Fund (CRF). Recognizing that communities with low incomes have needs beyond just housing, the Community Reinvestment Fund (CRF) would create a source of federal funding for civic infrastructure projects. The projects would serve existing residents in census tracts with high concentrations of poverty, as well as areas experiencing rapid gentrification. The community-based organizations (CBOs) that apply for these planning and implementation grants could use awards for redevelopment efforts such as restoring vacant buildings, constructing health centers and cultural spaces, or improving neglected land to create new parks and amenities. Last month, Senators Coons (D-DE) and Warnock (D-GA) sent a letter to congressional leadership urging them to fully fund this new program because “civic infrastructure projects complement affordable housing investments in neighborhoods and are critical to breaking the cycle of concentrated, intergenerational poverty.”
  • First-Generation Down Payment Assistance Fund. Narrower in scope than programs for “first-time” homebuyers, this fund would offer thousands in down payment assistance to “first-generation” homebuyers—information that applicants would be able to attest to rather than prove through documentation. This fund would aim to redress racial disparities in wealth and homeownership between Black and white people. Because of our nation’s legacy of chattel slavery and other racist housing practices like redlining that have multigenerational impacts, the homeownership rate for Black families was less than 45 percent nationwide, compared to a 73 percent rate for white families, just last year. Creating a fund specifically for first-generation homebuyers would be the United States’ first step toward acknowledging the deliberate exclusion of Black people from most of the benefit programs included in Roosevelt’s New Deal and the GI bill that helped build white, middle class wealth. The fund could also positively impact Latinx-led households, as more than 50 percent of Latinx people rent.

Importantly, the CRF includes $500 million set aside for Community Land Trusts (CLTs), which are nonprofits that hold land on behalf of a place-based community while serving as the long-term steward of affordable housing. The fund for first-generation homebuyers allows grantees to invest in homes preserved under a CLT or shared equity ownership as well. Expanding the amount of community-owned land and homes protects people with low incomes from displacement long-term and enables communities of color to build generational wealth.

Other important investments in the original resolution include $34 billion for the Housing Trust Fund, $4.5 billion for a program to promote inclusionary zoning, and $1.25 billion to support fair housing activities.

To ensure that these programs make it into the pared-down package, more members of Congress must raise homeownership disparities and community reinvestment as a priority, displaying their support for programs that acknowledge and strive to dismantle racist housing and land use policies or eliminate their lasting, discriminatory effects. Both the CRF and the and fund for first-generation homebuyers meet these goals.

If Congress fails to invest in programs that safeguard access, combat discrimination, and invest in community, we risk excluding Black, Indigenous, and immigrant people from federally funded pathways to build wealth. Policymakers cannot leave people of color out of another once-in-a-generation opportunity to achieve economic security.